Michael Shafran is an established food and wine journalist based in Sydney. He currently serves as author and "recipe whisperer" for Australia’s first major crowd-sourced cookbook, The Melting Pot, and runs his popular food blog, Gosstronomy.com. He is currently working on his first major cookbook.
By
April Smallwood

11 May 2012 - 5:22 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Michael Shafran is an established food and wine journalist based in Sydney. He currently serves as author and "recipe whisperer" for Australia’s first major crowd-sourced cookbook, The Melting Pot, and runs his popular food blog, Gosstronomy.com.

We chat to Michael about uncelebrated home cooks, his aunt and food idol Marilyn, and reasons why he will forever shun the Wagyu burger.

You seem to have stretched yourself all over the food journalism industry! What is it about running a blog that appeals to you?
Gosstronomy is a bit different from many other blogs. Most are started by food obsessives who want to get a foothold into writing. That wasn’t the case with me – I was already a successful food journalist, but I wanted to do stories that I was interested in, that I could write in my own voice, with more honesty and attitude than I might be able to elsewhere. I don’t need to worry about how to angle it to suit a magazine, or whether it will conflict with any advertisers. I can just write about what I’m interested in, and share my cooking, eating and travel experiences, with as much attitude and opinion as I like.

What got you in to food writing in the first place?
When I was 11, my mum went back to university to study interior design, which left me with my father, who, at the time, couldn’t even measure spaghetti. We ate out nearly every night for weeks, which was fun at first, but then I missed home cooking. So I started asking my mother how to cook simple things, from pasta to brisket and her chicken oreganata. At uni, I was the only one of my friends who could cook, so I was always making extra food, as people were always dropping by. Years later, when I was working as a sports editor in Boulder, Colorado, I started to go to the Cooking School of the Rockies at night to study French techniques. That was the beginning of my formal training.

My first food story was for TimeOut New York, on the restaurants in my then-home city of Hoboken – it took about six months of polite persistence to get the food editor to give me the assignment. Most of my food writing has been in Australia, however.

Tell us how The Melting Pot works.
The Melting Pot is Australia’s first major crowd-sourced cookbook, which means that we’re reaching out to the country’s talented home cooks to share their recipes, cultures and family stories. We hear so much from celebrity chefs, I thought it was time that we also championed and gave a podium to the amazing people who put dinner on the plate at home week in and week out.

The website enables home cooks to submit their favourite, heirloom recipes, and then tell their personal stories: from family traditions to cultural connections, tales of immigration and secret tips. The idea was that people should share the one family recipe they would save if their house was burning – something that they not only crave, but have a deep personal connection to.

Which chef do you most admire?
Brent Savage from Bentley. He’s a relatively quiet achiever – he doesn’t have the celebrity chef bravado thing going on. But his cooking is amazing. I got to see the creative process first-hand when I did a couple of days of work experience in the Bentley kitchen, soon after I flunked out prematurely trying out for the first season of MasterChef.

What most impressed me was a gala dinner for Tony Bilson’s Cuisine Now that featured dishes from top chefs like Tetsuya Wakuda, Guillaume Brahimi, Shannon Bennett, Bilson himself, and some top-notch Michelin-starred chefs from France. I remember Brent’s dish, a slow-roasted duck with cuttlefish and mushroom, standing heads above everyone else’s that night. That was pretty damn impressive.

The other chef I admire is my Aunt Marilyn in Brooklyn. Nearly every Friday night for as long as I can remember, she’s been preparing traditional Sabbath dinners, comprised of dynamite examples of Jewish comfort food: chicken soup with matzoh balls or kneidlach (beef dumplings); kugel (baked egg noodle casserole); homemade gefilte fish; brisket; kasha varnishkes (buckwheat and pasta); roast chicken; and the kind of challah bread you only seem to get from Brooklyn bakers. Any week, on pretty much zero notice, I could hop on the M train and go there for dinner – that’s one of the things I miss most about not living in New York.

Which chef would you kick out of the kitchen?
It’s not so much kick out as kick in. I think Curtis Stone has never put himself on the line as a top chef – he peaked as the head chef for Marco Pierre White’s doomed Quo Vadis in 2007, but has never created his own vision. It would be good to see him run his own restaurant, so we know it’s not all just media hype and a pretty face.

Oh yeah, and I’d love to kick out any chef making a Wagyu burger. You don’t need marbling for burgers, because you can add as much fat as you want when you make your mince, so you can use cheaper cuts that actually have a better flavour and texture profile. Case in point: those amazing patties at NYC’s Shake Shack are reportedly a blend of sirloin, chuck and brisket – although others have mentioned short rib as well. Maybe give that a whirl, and stop charging so damn much.

You're a native New Yorker turned Sydney boy. What are the differences between New Yorkers' and Sydneysiders' attitudes towards food?

Well, the most noticeable differences are because of the climates: the cold New York winters means that the food is relatively heavier, while Sydney’s is lighter and fresher. We’re a bit more trend-driven here – New York has so much competition that people are more focused on creating something new and completely different, rather than another fad restaurant that does – as Sydney is currently obsessed with – seasonal produce, Mexican, Wagyu burgers or dude food.

There are also key differences in multicultural influences: New York has excellent Cuban, Mexican, Korean, Italian-American, Jamaican, Jewish/kosher and Japanese food, among others. Sydney does lots of Asian cuisines exceptionally well, from Thai to Malaysian/Singaporean, Chinese and Indonesian, as well as Lebanese, modern Italian and fusion, aka contemporary Australian. And while I think the highs in New York can be higher, Sydney is far more consistent – you can get quality, fresh food everywhere. In New York, you really need to know where you’re going, lest you risk a truly awful meal. When I’m in Sydney, I miss good bagels, pizza by the slice, and pastrami on rye. When I’m in New York, I miss my Thai and Chinese locals, our great boutique wines that never seem to make it overseas and – admittedly – Oporto Bondi Burgers.

You were involved in last year’s Malaysia Food Kitchen’s blogger summit. Did you enjoy the experience?
I loved it, and I’m still not even Malaysian’d out by now. The whole idea was to eat at a different Malaysian restaurant in Sydney each week and blog about it. The meals were paid for by Malaysia Kitchen, which promotes Malaysia’s food culture, but it was brilliant in that they gave bloggers a $400 debit card and asked them to eat wherever and write whatever they wanted, good or bad – I wouldn’t have done it if I couldn’t give an honest opinion. I found my favourite laksa at Kensington’s Kaki Lima, and my best overall meat at a brilliant but tiny Malaysian eatery called Jackie M in Concord in Sydney’s mid-West. And since Malaysian food is so cheap, I got to bring friends along to enjoy the ride.

Can you see yourself getting more involved in the kitchen in the future?
I certainly hope so. Ironically, I prefer slaving away in the kitchen to eating at fancy restaurants, but I’ve done far more of the latter these past few years, especially having reviewed for four major food guides over the past year. I did manage to do a semester last year at TAFE Sydney, where I spent one day each week with the other apprentice chefs learning Commercial Cookery.

Tell us a bit about your new cookbook.
It’s called The Melting Pot, and is about showing what Australian comfort food is today, especially with our continuing and diversifying influx of cultures. Australian food is no longer simply meat pies and lamingtons; you can easily argue that Vietnamese pho, Thai red curry, Portuguese tarts and Lebanese kibbeh are as much Aussie comfort dishes as any sausage roll. I’ll be having weekly competitions for different types of foods, and letting the online community do the short-list.

Talk us through the best meal you’ve ever had.
My best meals usually happen when I’ve travelling – not only is the food different and surprising, but there’s a sense of excitement and anticipation that you can only get when you’re on the road. I’m a pizza fanatic, so I took the train from Rome to Naples to visit what was supposed to be the best pizza place in town, only to discover that it was closed, so my cab driver took my to his favourite place, and it was the most amazing pizza margherita and spaghetti pomodoro I’ve ever had.

Driving inland through Portugal, we stopped in the Medieval city of Evora and were walking through the Moroccan quarter when a restaurateur coaxed us in, simply saying 'Come in, I feed you." There was no menu; just course after course of fresh, amazing rustic Portuguese dishes, all while everyone else in the restaurant was transfixed on the soccer on the TV.

In New York, I had a brilliant meal at Dan Barber’s Stone Barns at Blue Hill – he’s growing every type of produce and rare-breed livestock imaginable, and his fresh, honest, avant-garde food has inspired chefs the world over"¦ and me.

In Australia, one of my favourite meals remains Loam in the Bellarine – Aaron Turner learned some nifty tricks at Noma, and his restaurant feels as nurturing and creative as his food. The next morning, I was up early and out in the peninsular, following Aaron as we foraged for wild spinach, wild fennel, samphire and more – it was brilliant.

What would your blog followers be surprised to learn about you?
That I was one of the first night skaters in New York City, and globally – no-one skated the city streets back then, and being an unknown quantity, we could even sneak into the Twin Towers and Grand Central Station for a while – and that I went on to become a competitive speedskater, training with an Olympic-calibre coach in the Colorado Rockies. I was about to spend a winter training with all of the other national team hopefuls in Milwaukee, when I separated my shoulder during a rain-soaked pile-up during the inline racing 100km national championships in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, so I shifted gears and started up my own dot-com, launching Skating.com. As for some other, more infamous moments, I was also a teenage hacker who had the FBI come to my mother’s house – twice – and I had a short-lived stint as a sex columnist for GQ Australia, but I couldn’t look anyone in the eye after the third article, so I stuck with food writing.

Follow Michael on Twitter.